Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Alentejo Blue by Monica Ali

Alentejo Blue is set in a village community in Portugal, called Mamarossa. In a series of episodic vignettes, Monica Ali lays out the daily lives, hopes, wishes, and dreams of villagers and visitors alike. She captures small details that shows the person: the filthy rag that Vasco mindlessly uses to wipe the tables in his cafe as he muses about his dead American wife and what he will eat next; the smelly never-washed clothes that drunken China Potts appears in again and again. She doesn't shrink from the disgusting or the gross.  This book seems disjointed and does not flow.  I found it very disappointing compared to her previous work of Brick Lane. 

Rating: 1 Do NOT recommend

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

This book takes place in NY post 9/11.  Hans--a banker originally from the Netherlands--finds himself marooned among the strange occupants of the Chelsea Hotel after his English wife and son return to London. Alone and untethered, feeling lost in the country he had come to regard as home, Hans stumbles upon the vibrant New York subculture of cricket, where he revisits his lost childhood and, thanks to a friendship with a charismatic and charming Trinidadian named Chuck Ramkissoon, begins to reconnect with his life and his adopted country. I want to like this book but, so far, I don't.  It has beautiful writing but it hasn't grabbed me.

Rating: 1 Do NOT Recommend

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Plainsong follows the lives of several characters in rural Holt, Colorado - Guthrie, an honest school teacher whose wife has suffered a nervous breakdown; his two sons, Ike and Bobby, who find themselves facing death, independence, and growing up; Victoria Roubideaux, a pregnant teenager thrown out of her mother's house; the McPherons, Harold and Raymond, bachelor brothers who know more about cattle prices and corn cribs than they do about people; and Maggie Jones, the woman who connects them. 

This book just didn't grab me.  Between the simple writing, the lack of quotation marks and long, rushed sentences it was truly bothersome but, what ultimately lost me was the lack of a decent plot or character development,

Rating: 1 Do NOT recommend

Any Bitter Thing by Monica Wood

I just finished this book and have two words for you:  read it.  Monica Wood writes with such stunning and thought provoking imagery that there were several paragraphs that I have slowed down and re-read savoring the words like poetry. The plot is completely unexpected and flowed smoothly from one shocking revelation to the next. The victim of a hit-and-run accident, Lizzy Mitchell is left by the driver in the middle of the median, hurt and adrift. Later Lizzie comes to see the accident as indicative of her life up to that point. Raised by her uncle Mike, a Maine priest, Lizzy grows up surrounded by his devotion to ministry.

I absolutely fell in love with Father Mike and how he raised Lizzy.  At age nine, Lizzy's comfortable world crumbles. In present day Lizzy, now a high-school counselor, is still trying to make sense of what happened. Wood's characters show refreshing depth and complexity as they each grapple with the irrefutable power of the past. This emotional story is filled with crisp, rich details that linger in the memory. Wood's stirring domestic drama is full of surprises as it explores the weighty themes of religion, perceived innocence, and the corrosive quality of best intentions.  The character development and reliving through memory is reminiscent of Crow Lake by Mary Lawson.  The plot twists kept me engrossed as, tearily, I turned the very last page. 

Rating: 4.9  Definite Recommend

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Tale of Desperaux by Kate DiCamillo

This is a young adult book by the same author as The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane which I loved.  In this book, DiCamillo's story centers around a mouse named Despereaux who just doesn't fit in with the other mice. He is born with his eyes opened. He sees a beautiful world that the others are blind to, and he is shunned because of it. He is able to hear music, and he is able to love creatures of other races. This tiny mouse falls in love with the human Princess Pea, and that begins quite a chain of events.

This is a dark novel. There are characters who have had little chance in life and have been harmed because of it. There are characters here who have lead dark lives and are trying to destroy Princess Pea and Despereaux. It does have an overall message of love and hope and the possibility of redemption.

I had a few issues with this book.  I wasn't sure about the narrated "Dear Reader"-style but, I can see how that helps DiCamillo break the third wall to explain to children what is transpiring.  It is VERY dark (having an adult regularly hit a child in the ears until she is deaf and has cauliflower ears???!?) and I don't think it is at all appropriate for young adults.

If you read this in your mind as if you are reading it to a child, it is a cute little story about having the courage to bring some light into the world but, again, with it being so dark, I am not sure if I would buy this for a young adult.  I also much prefered The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.

Rating: 3 Ok

Monday, December 14, 2009

Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

I started reading this book for one of my book clubs and, so far, it is not grabbing me.  It is about the events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.  It is about two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair's construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor. I just didn't grab me.  With so many wonderful books waiting for me to read, I am going to move on.

Rating: 1 Do not recommend

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

Snow Falling on Cedars is an absorbing, thoroughly enjoyable read. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I can say that this book makes the Puget Sound come alive.  At times an interracial romance, a murder mystery, a courtroom drama, and a fictionalized chronicle of the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans.  Throughout it all, this book pulls the reader into an accurate rendering of life on an island in Puget Sound and makes the characters come alive. The various aspects of the novel are seamlessly interwoven into a narrative that allows the reader to embrace the plot, the characters, and the dead-on descriptions of the physical characteristics of the novel's setting.

I wanted to LOVE this book but, it felt too long.  It is great in capturing the Japanese culture, the German Americans and the Pacific Northwest but, it should have been shorter.

Rating: 3.6 OK

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon

This book starts off with three different story lines that seemingly have absolutely nothing to do with each other. One story begins with a young man, Ryan, whose father assures him that he will not bleed to death as they rush to the emergency room with his severed hand in a styrofoam ice cooler. We later learn more about Ryan, he is Northwestern student who is failing all his classes and is undergoing an identity crisis of sorts when he discovers that the people he grew up with as his parents are actually his adoptive parents. Story number two is of Miles Cheshire who has spent most of his adult life looking for his brother Hayden who had been diagnosed as a schizophrenic when they were teens. But is he really? And finally we have the story of Lucy Lattimore who runs off after her high school graduation with her teacher George Orson.
All these stories are seemingly removed and unconnected and I kept wondering what they had to do with each other. But each story is interesting on its on and that draws you in and keeps your reading. It is a light easy read but, it lost me 3/4 of the way through and I was glad when I finished it.

Rating: 2.5 Do not recommend

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Peace Like A River by Leif Enger

I had a friend recommend this book to me over and over again and I definitely wasn't disappointed once I finally read it (thanks Luce!!) This is a wonderful epic tale in a book that you won't want to put down. It is impossible not to love Reuben, the young boy who narrates this novel, as well as his father, a man who is driven by his faith and love of his family.
However, there is far more that will captivate you as no other book has done. I am completely amazed by the superb prose and eloquent style. This is truly a gem that I couldn't wait to get back to and thoroughly enjoyed.

Rating: 5   Definite Recommend

Friday, November 20, 2009

Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

I have started this book twice before and toasted it.  Apparently this is common.  My g/f said she started it ELEVEN times before it grabbed her.  I am not sure if I have that much perseverance but, this was my third time. This story takes place in the 1950's and tells of a missionary and his family going on a mission to Africa.  Nathan's wife, Orleanna, and their daughters - shallow teen-age Rachel, twins Leah and Adah, and five-year-old Ruth May, each take a different chapter and take turns telling the story of their time in Africa.  Apparently there is two parts to this book: The first is about Nathan's clumsy and ill-advised attempts to fit Africa to his fundamentalist beliefs, and the family's attempts to fit their lives to Africa. The second is about the way a family tragedy marks its survivors and the different ways events in Africa mark them as well.  I didn't care for the character and even though I made it farther this time than any previous time, I still couldn't finish it. 

Rating: 1 Do NOT recommend

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Whistling in the Dark by Lesley Kegan

This is an endearing tale about the "O'Malley sisters," Sally and Troo, 10 and 9 years of age, and their summer chalked full of turmoil and suspense. Their mother becomes gravely ill leaving them to be tended by a drunken stepfather, a disinterested older sister, and a neighborhood full of delicous, eccentric characters. Set in 1959, the book remembers days of lazy summers filled with "red rover," "green light, red light," and playground antics. Though seemingly the era of innocence, darkness hides in the shadows, and Sally and Troo stumble upon it in it's most dangerous form. Thankfully, the O'Malley's have enough family and neighbors in their arsenal to allow this book to be enlightening, humorous, and charming, as well as intense.   This book is thoroughly enjoyable and has the ability to make the reader experience belly laughter, jitters, tingling fear, and sentimental sadness.

Rating: 3.5 Ok

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Outlander by Gil Adamson

I thoroughly enjoyed this beautiful quiet book.  If you are in the mood for a slow story that gently unfolds without a lot of fanfare but, when you read every line, captures you with it's beauty, then this is the book for you.  The story is set in 1903 and about a 19 year old woman who is on the run for murdering her husband.

She is being tracked by brutal-looking redheaded twins, over the plains of western Canada and into the mountains. She hears voices and sees events that may or may not be happening, causing her and other characters (and me!) to question her sanity. This adventure-suspense novel has a refined, often poetic style and maintains suspense while portraying the wilderness of Canada’s far west and providing fine portraits of the people who lived in and were shaped by it. The slow unfolding of story and characters coupled with lyrical descriptions of the terrain, an occasional touch of bizarre humor, and a multitude of well-chosen historical details is very appealing. 

Rating: 4.8  Definite recommend

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

This book is about Lucky, age 10, who lives in a tiny town in California (population 43), with her dog and the young French woman who is her guardian. Lucky, who is totally contemporary, teeters between bravado--gathering insect specimens, scaring away snakes from the laundry--and fear that her guardian will leave her to return to France. Her best friend, Lincoln, is a boy with a fixation for tying knots; another acquaintance, Miles, seems a tiresome pest until Lucky discovers a secret about his mother. This is a fun plot and the characters are endearing. Lucky is not perfect and she does some cowardly things, but she takes pains to put them to rights.  It says Grades 4 to 6 but I would say Grades 7 to 8.  A cute read.

Rating: 3 OK

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

I wanted to like this book.  I read 300+ pages of this book and although I can appreciate the literary gifts of Steinbeck, the characters are flat. No anger, no passion, no happiness….nothing. My g/f Ann is reading this book and thoroughly enjoy it so now I feel like a heathen!  I may try to go back to this book but, right now, I just need a break from it.

Rating: 2 Do NOT recommend

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Summer Guest by Justin Cronin

How to do this book justice?  From the first page, I was enthralled and couldn't wait to turn the next page. Light, easy and completely a pleasure to read. This is such a beautiful book.

Each chapter is told by a different person and at the end of each chapter, I miss that person's voice until I start the next chapter and am completely engrossed by the new voice. This amazing book spans 30 years and the individual's stories and perspectives unwind and interwine seamlessly. A definite MUST read. including love, war, disease, loss, betrayal, and redemption. The book revolves around the story of Harry Wainwright, a wealthy entrepreneur who falls in love with the camp as a young man and returns decades later for one last day of fishing before he succumbs to terminal cancer. I was sad to finish it as I didn't want it to end.

Rating: 4.7  Definite Recommend!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Miraculous Journey Of Edward Tulane

I absolutely LOVED this book! It is *perfect* for a young girl as it is a young adult book but, even old adults will enjoy this charming story. A quick and thoroughly enjoyable read.   Thanks to Melissa for loaning this to me or I never would have discovered this wonderful book.

Edward, a china rabbit, is the main character in this thoughtful tale by Kate DiCamillo. Edward is dearly loved by a young girl named Abilene. One day he is lost over the side of a boat. His journey leads him to a older couple who dress him like a girl rabbit, a hobo and his dog, a young girl and her brother and, finally, to a doll shop. Along the way, Edward learns to love the people he encounters. He also learns that family members can be cruel to one another; that hobos have family that they love dearly and don't want to forget; that no matter how much you love someone, she may still die; and that no matter what happens in life, never give up on love. A beautifully crafted telling with beautiful drawings to accompany it.  It says for Grades 2-4.  I don't have children but think that it may be for older children as it deals with death, being homeless and other facts of our cruel world that younger children may not be equipped for.

Rating: 5 - Definite Recommend for Young Adult, especially a young girl

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer

Cutsey and light. Enjoyable but not a MUST read. Interesting how the story unfolded in letters.

Set in both London and Guernsey Island, this novel follows author Juliet as she becomes friends with the inhabitants of the island shortly after the end of World War II. Told in epistolary style, Juliet learns of the occupied island and its deprivations, as well as the resounding spirit of the people who live there. As she writes, she becomes more and more intrigued with the stories of the people who survived the hard times, and she decides to create a book based on their experiences. In order to gather more information, Juliet moves temporarily to the island and soon finds herself immsersed in the culture and relationships.

Rating: 3.7 Ok

Monday, October 12, 2009

Matilda by Roald Dahl

From the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is, Matilda the story of a precocious four-year-old whose parents are crass, dishonest  and regard her as "nothing more than a scab." (ala Lemony Snicket).  Life with her beastly parents is bearable only because Matilda teaches herself to read, finds the public library, and discovers literature. When she starts school, the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, is "a fierce tyrannical monster".  Thankfully, her teacher Miss Honey is an angel who sees the brilliant promise of Matilda and encourages her.  A cute read for ages 9-11.

Rating 3.4 Ok

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

Each chapter is told from a different person's perspective. A wonderful read.

Laura marries Henry but gets more than she bargains for when Henry moves her from the city to a remote farm (no water or electricity!) where she also has to try to get along with Henry's Pappy who is a very ornery man and his charming brother Jamie. One of their tenants on the farm is Hap, his wife Florence and their children, including their grown son Ronsel who has been serving in the first Black infantry in WWII. A great plot that the author unfolds in an effortless way. A truly good story that I kept wanting to get back to.

Rating: 4.8 Recommend

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

A light and thoroughbly enjoyable read that tackles a heavy topic.  Southern whites' guilt for not expressing gratitude to the black maids who raised them threatens to become a familiar refrain. But don't tell Kathryn Stockett because her first novel is a nuanced variation on the theme that strikes every note with authenticity. In a page-turner that brings new resonance to the moral issues involved, she spins a story of social awakening as seen from both sides of the American racial divide.

Rating: 4.8 Recommend

Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

A tense and haunting novel following four people trying to survive war-torn Sarajevo. After a mortar attack kills 22 people waiting in line to buy bread, an unnamed cellist vows to play at the point of impact for 22 days. Arrow, a young woman sniper, picks off soldiers; Kenan makes a dangerous trek to get water for his family; and Dragan, who sent his wife and son out of the city at the start of the war, works at a bakery and trades bread in exchange for shelter.  All the while, the cellist continues to play. With wonderfully drawn characters and a stripped-down narrative, Galloway brings to life a distant conflict.

Rating: 4.7 Recommend

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese

There is a reason that I picked this book as the first book to start my recently founded Book Club.  It is spectacular and I wanted to set the bar high for all future reads.  In a magnificent, sweeping novel that moves from India to Ethiopia to an inner-city hospital in New York City over decades and generations. Sister Mary Joseph Praise, a devout young nun, leaves the south Indian state of Kerala in 1947 for a missionary post in Yemen. During the arduous sea voyage, she saves the life of an English doctor bound for Ethiopia, Thomas Stone, who becomes a key player in her destiny when they meet up again at Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa. Seven years later, Sister Praise dies birthing twin boys: Shiva and Marion, the latter narrating his own and his brothers long, dramatic, biblical story set against the backdrop of political turmoil in Ethiopia, the life of the hospital compound in which they grow up and the love story of their adopted parents, both doctors at Missing. The boys become doctors as well and Vergheses weaving of the practice of medicine into the narrative is fascinating even as the story bobs and weaves with the power and coincidences of the best 19th-century novel.

Rating: 5 Definite Recommend!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

I don't care for any other of Ann Patchett's work but, this was a beautiful quiet story that I found mesmerizing.  Persevere through the first chapter and you won't be sorry.  In an unnamed South American country, a world-renowned soprano sings at a birthday party in honor of a visiting Japanese industrial titan. His hosts hope that Mr. Hosokawa can be persuaded to build a factory in their Third World backwater. Alas, in the opening sequence, just as the accompanist kisses the soprano, a ragtag band of 18 terrorists enters the vice-presidential mansion through the air conditioning ducts. Their quarry is the president, who has unfortunately stayed home to watch a favorite soap opera. And thus, from the beginning, things go awry.

Joined by no common language except music, the 58 international hostages and their captors forge unexpected bonds. Time stands still, priorities rearrange themselves. Ultimately, of course, something has to give, even in a novel so imbued with the rich imaginative potential of magic realism. But in a fractious world, Bel Canto remains a gentle reminder of the transcendence of beauty and love.  This book unfolds like the beautiful opera that it is centered around.

Rating: 4.6 Recommend

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

I normally like to know a high level plot before I start reading a book.  With this one, the publishers of Chris Cleave's new novel "don't want to spoil" the story by revealing too much about it, and there's good reason not to tell too much about the plot's pivot point. All you should know going in to Little Bee is that what happens on the beach is brutal, and that it braids the fates of a 16-year-old Nigerian orphan (who calls herself Little Bee) and a well-off British couple--journalists trying to repair their strained marriage with a free holiday--who should have stayed behind their resort's walls. The tide of that event carries Little Bee back to their world, which she claims she couldn't explain to the girls from her village because they'd have no context for its abundance and calm. But she shows us the infinite rifts in a globalized world, where any distance can be crossed in a day--with the right papers--and "no one likes each other, but everyone likes U2." Where you have to give up the safety you'd assumed as your birthright if you decide to save the girl gazing at you through razor wire, left to the wolves of a failing state.

Rating: 5 Definite Recommend

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill

Stunning, wrenching and inspiring, the fourth novel by Canadian novelist Hill (Any Known Blood) spans the life of Aminata Diallo, born in Bayo, West Africa, in 1745. The novel opens in 1802, as Aminata is wooed in London to the cause of British abolitionists, and begins reflecting on her life. Kidnapped at the age of 11 by British slavers, Aminata survives the Middle Passage and is reunited in South Carolina with Chekura, a boy from a village near hers. Her story gets entwined with his, and with those of her owners: nasty indigo producer Robinson Appleby and, later, Jewish duty inspector Solomon Lindo. During her long life of struggle, she does what she can to free herself and others from slavery, including learning to read and teaching others to, and befriending anyone who can help her, black or white. Hill handles the pacing and tension masterfully, particularly during the beginnings of the American revolution, when the British promise to free Blacks who fight for the British: Aminata's related, eventful travels to Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone follow. In depicting a woman who survives history's most trying conditions through force of intelligence and personality, Hill's book is a harrowing, breathtaking tour de force.

Rating: 4.9 Definite Recommend

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Reader by Bernard Schlink

The richness of the translation comes through in every page.  Michael Berg, 15, is on his way home from high school in post-World War II Germany when he becomes ill and is befriended by a woman who takes him home. When he recovers from hepatitis many weeks later, he dutifully takes the 40-year-old Hanna flowers in appreciation, and the two become lovers. The relationship, at first purely physical, deepens when Hanna takes an interest in the young man's education, insisting that he study hard and attend classes. He never learns very much about her, and when she disappears one day, he expects never to see her again. But, to his horror, he does. Hanna is a defendant in a trial related to Germany's Nazi past, and it soon becomes clear that she is guilty of an unspeakable crime. As Michael follows the trial, he struggles with an overwhelming question: What should his generation do with its knowledge of the Holocaust? "We should not believe we can comprehend the incomprehensible, we may not compare the incomparable.... Should we only fall silent in revulsion, shame, and guilt? To what purpose?"

Rating: 4.7 Definite Recommend

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

A young, ostensibly thriving couple living with their two children in a prosperous Connecticut suburb in the mid-1950s. However, like the characters in John Updike's similarly themed Couples, the self-assured exterior masks a creeping frustration at their inability to feel fulfilled in their relationships or careers. Frank is mired in a well-paying but boring office job and April is a housewife still mourning the demise of her hoped-for acting career. Determined to identify themselves as superior to the mediocre sprawl of suburbanites who surround them, they decide to move to France where they will be better able to develop their true artistic sensibilities, free of the consumerist demands of capitalist America. As their relationship deteriorates into an endless cycle of squabbling, jealousy and recriminations, their trip and their dreams of self-fulfillment are thrown into jeopardy. I will be reading more Yates in the future.

Rating: 4.8 Recommend